Monthly Archives: September 2011

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close – Book

Girls in White Dresses by Jennifer Close is not a book from my lists. It is one of those books that I occasionally pick up while browsing the “new books” shelves at the library. I have a weakness for “Chick Lit” and this looked like “Chick Lit” and it is a book that will mostly be read by women (I would guess). Although this book reads a bit deeper and “darker” than “Chick Lit”, it is still a modern story about young women who could be any of us.
It is written almost like a series of short stories but you soon realize that this is an illusion. If we start a chapter with a character we don’t know pretty soon we see how they are connected to the characters we already know.
We check in with these women when they are just out of college and the book ends somewhere near their 30th birthdays. They drink too much, they own too many bridesmaids dresses, and they go through men like tissues looking for someone special. Do they find him? You know how this goes; read the book and see.
This is Jennifer Close’s first novel and it is very genuine and enjoyable. It is the perfect book for a rainy day because you can finish the whole story in a long afternoon.

The Attack on Environmental Protections

Mick JaggerCover of Mick Jagger
Anyone who knows me knows that I am not fond of Republican stances on the issues of the day. I am not even very fond of their belief that the American electorate is so ignorant that basic high school propaganda will bring us all under their sway. In modern-speak they think “[they’ve] got the moves like Jagger.”
So it is no surprise that they are using the economic downturn to turn down the heat on environmental matters. They have placed “clean air, clean water, and clean soil” issues all in their sights. It is quite easy for them to justify their war on environmental protection because many Republicans say they don’t believe in “global warming.” Over and over, they insist that the evidence for global warming has been invented or exaggerated, or any other adjective that will defuse the issue and turn it into Democratic “sleight of mind”. This implies that Democrats are so anti-business that they will make up theories; but, I believe Democrats like money, profit and success as well at the next person and would not intentionally sabotage big business.
Republicans tell us ad nauseum that our environmental targets and levels have chased business out of America. They assume that if we suspend the rules and let companies “dirty” things up again that these companies will gladly return to do business in America. I think they are wrong. We cannot work for the wages that are paid in Asia and these businesses would have to pick up and move again, which they are unlikely to do.
If there is such a thing as global warming, and I believe there is, even Asia will not be able to operate forever without environmental protections. They may feel that unregulated capitalism is their right because it took so long to come to them, but if they experience an unregulated period equal in length to ours, given their populations and demands, our Earth may not be able to withstand the pollution levels and maintain healthy air, water and soil cycles. Nasty stuff will not stay trapped over Asia. Gases go everywhere, although prevailing winds determine main directions. Seventy-five percent of the Earth is water and water goes everywhere also if you count evaporation-condensation-precipitation cycles. So what happens in Asia won’t stay in Asia.
We cannot afford to let Republicans dismantle America’s hard-won schedule of environmental protections. I can understand dialing things back a bit while we deal with jobs and deficits, but we cannot abandon our human position as caretakers of our planet, at least not until we can escape a ruined Earth to live on other planets.

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The Role of America’s National Government

The western front of the United States Capitol...Image via Wikipedia
Since we are deep in the middle of a national argument about the size of the Federal Government I decided to double check what the Constitution has to say on the subject. I used the site because it provided a simple list with no additional commentary, or, “the facts, Ma’am, just the facts and nothing but the facts” to quote Sergeant Joe Friday of “Dragnet” fame.
Powers given in the Constitution of the National Government
1.       Print money
2.       Regulate interstate and international trade
3.       Make treaties and conduct foreign policy
4.       Declare war
5.       Provide an army and navy
6.       Establish post offices
7.       Make laws necessary and proper to carry out these powers
Powers given to the States in the Constitution
1.       Issue licenses
2.       Regulate intrastate businesses
3.       Conduct elections
4.       Establish local governments
5.       Ratify amendments to the Constitution
6.       Take measures for public health and safety
7.       May exert powers the Constitution does not delegate to the national government or prohibit states from using
Powers shared by National and State Governments
1.       Collect taxes
2.       Build roads
3.       Borrow money
4.       Establish courts
5.       Make and enforce laws
6.       Charter banks and corporations
7.       Spend money for the general welfare
8.       Take private property for public purpose with just compensation (eminent domain)
The Republicans often point to the seventh item under powers given to the States and they consistently use language that says that all powers not specifically delegated to the National (or Federal) government belong to the states.
They believe that education should belong to the states; they would put health and welfare with the states. They feel the Federal government is guilty of over-regulating business and that regulations need to be peeled back to allow government to get out of the way of business and let the marketplace control the economy. They believe that, although the Federal government is allowed to collect taxes, tax levels are too high. They believe that, although the Federal government has the power to spend money for the general welfare, that they have made promises that are unsustainable, and have subverted the balance of power between the Federal government and the States as intended by our Forefathers.
They would, as it appears from their strident complaints about the overreach of Federal government, drastically change the role of the Federal government as we know it. They do not show a desire to fix Social Security. They want to phase it out. They want to count on the private marketplace to provide social security to seniors. They want the ditch Medicaid and Medicare, get the Federal government out of the health care business and, again, they want to count on the private marketplace to provide health care products to Americans.
They want the Federal government to stop interfering in issues of education, and to let the states deal with educating their residents as they see fit. American educational standards cannot vary from state to state, just as health care quality should not vary from state to state. It would cause national chaos if there were not some regulated uniformity among the states on these and other issues.
It is clear that the Federal government has not overstepped its powers as delineated in the Constitution.  It has the right to collect taxes; it has the right to regulate interstate and international trade (which is a synonym for business). It has the right to spend money for the general welfare. Although I believe we need to constantly assess all regulations of business to take care that they do not strangle business, although we need to revise popular programs that become less viable for any number of reasons, we also need to accept that regulation is necessary and that social programs make life more livable for all of us, not just the people who are targeted to receive the benefits. I believe the Republicans have become too extreme and too unrealistic. They want to pare Federal government to a sort of bare bones operation that they believe more closely represents the austere vision of our forefathers who were in turn influenced by 18th century economists. I don’t believe we can fit a 21st century America into an 18th century mindset. Small government is just what it says, “small”, and we are no longer a “small” country, so I say bigger country, bigger government. We may need to pare back our National government a bit, but not to the degree that the Republicans insist on. If only compromise were possible we might be able to achieve a modern balance. If only.
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Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson – Book

Cover of "Case Histories: A Novel"Cover of Case Histories: A Novel

I just finished reading Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson and I wish I didn’t because I wanted it to last a bit longer. Ms. Atkinson writes mysteries, quirky, off-beat, human, British mysteries. This one includes Jackson Brodie, who has done his detecting in several of Kate’s books.

Jackson Brodie has been hired by Hope McMaster, who is living in New Zealand, to help locate her birth parents. Tracy Waterhouse, retired policewoman, is one of the people Jackson needs to contact, but she is on the run because she just “bought” a child from an abusive parent, and she doesn’t want to have to give her back. In fact several children are rescued from terrible situations in this mystery which covers the best and the worst in human nature.

There’s a lot going on – we are flashing between 1975 and the present, someone is killing prostitutes, cops are covering up illegal activities, an old lady is going senile, a social worker is missing and these is another detective named Jackson following everyone.

This is a wonderful mystery and I found out there are several more Jackson Brodie mysteries (Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will there Be Good News?) In addition Kate Atkinson has written Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Human Croquet, Emotionally Weird, and Not the End of the World. I will be reading more of Ms. Atkinson’s books.

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Good News

King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. (2002 photo)Image via Wikipedia

Of course we are all still worried about the economy and we hope they will stop “mucking about” and do something about jobs NOW! But we know the wheels grind exceedingly slowly and the Republicans will keep stonewalling until 2012 and beyond, so we have to look away sometimes because it is like watching paint dry. (I would say it’s like watching grass grow, but my grass keeps growing at an alarming pace; the jobs dilemma should only be solved so fast.)

So when I looked away from the train wreck that is our economy for a few minutes this weekend I saw some great news for a change. First I saw the hikers who have been imprisoned in Iran as they flew into Oman and then, finally, home to the U S. I watched them speak from a hotel in NYC. I am very happy that the three of them (Josh Fattal, Shane Bauer and Sarah Shourd) are reunited again and that they are free. They described freedom as “tasting sweet” and it made me remember to appreciate the freedom I enjoy every day. I cannot imagine going for a hike and ending up in prison for two years.

The second piece of great news also involved a Middle Eastern nation, Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah has decided that Saudi women, who aren’t allowed to drive, will be allowed to vote and run for political office (although not in this Thursday’s election and, in fact, not until 2015). We definitely live in interesting times, but good news is incredibly rare. So I am very relieved that Josh and Shane are home in America and I am also thrilled that Saudi women will enter the 21st century (in 2015).

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Neutron Dance

Relativity-formulaImage via Wikipedia

Yesterday on CNN someone read the news that there may be particles that can move faster than the speed of light (neutrinos), which means we may find the next step after E=mc2. The universe is a deep and profound place.

We often believe one truth until we learn the next one. This does not always mean that the first truth will not remain useful on some level. If you need to know what will happen in a speed of light environment Relativity Theory will still apply. However, it stimulates our minds to entertain the belief that if a neutrino can move faster than the speed of light then a space ship may be able to tap into that stunning energy to also travel through space without using up huge chunks of human time.

So we don’t necessarily have to “dis” Einstein as they did all day yesterday. What he did was exciting and scary and changed everything. Maybe we’re just on the cusp of finding the next puzzle clue that will solve another riddle and take us into a new technology – maybe to the Space Age.

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A panoramic skyline view of Buffalo, NY from t...Image via Wikipedia

Corporations say they can’t hire until we spend and we can’t spend until they hire.

Right now the Republican candidates are focused on each other, after the primary they will focus, laser-like, on dissing Obama – be afraid, be very afraid.

6.4 million “children” in their 20’s and 30’s have had to move home with their parents because they can’t get jobs that will support them.

The Stock Market is making me dizzy. Are they trying to invent drama or are they really this clueless. Investors are reminding me of sandpipers at the edge of the waves. (Psst – it’s the only game in town.)

The 2nd X Factor broadcast was a big waste of time. It’s beginning to look like a rescue mission. There was one excellent singer from Buffalo, NY and a few others with promise, but Miami and Dallas looked like “slim pickin’s”.

I found out I am too old to take a job at Pier 1 because there is a lot of lifting involved and you have to climb up and down tall ladders to lower large objects from very high shelves. This job contains an element of physical danger. It is a very vertical store.

Poverty level for a family of 4 is $22,000. There are no official government levels for what constitutes a middle class level or a level for the rich. However a family of 4 making $44,000 is still eligible for some types of government aid. Many people feel the poverty limit is set too low.

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Natural High – The X Factor

Stevie WonderCover of Stevie Wonder

If you watched the X Factor last night you were there for one of the rare moments of TV magic. Wonderful new talents were uncovered and by the end of the show I was touched and amazed, entertained and uplifted (and I don’t usually use words like uplifted). There were also a couple of truly bad performances for us to enjoy and one pants -less performance for us to be grossed out by. There were people who exhibited huge doses of confidence for no apparent reason and then there were the truly talented.

The genius of the show is that we are treated to a background film about each successful performer before we hear them so we already know that what we will hear will be special and we already feel personally invested in the audition. We don’t just meet the singer, we meet the family members who came to the audition with them and we see them reunited with their families after their performances. If allows us to tap into the emotions of the singers as well as their performances. When they cry we wipe away a bit of moisture from the corners of our own eyes. When they collapse on the stage in stunned happiness we find ourselves standing up in our living room saying things like “yes”, and “that was amazing” and “I hope he’s not too fragile right now to handle this” to the cat who just continues grooming her ballerina legs.

It made me happy to see these people do so well in a hugely intimidating environment. I loved when Rachel Crow who is only 13 sang “Mercy” by Duffy and when Stacy Francis, a 42 year old who had been somewhat beaten down by life, sang “Natural Woman” by Aretha Franklin to a standing ovation. My pleasure continued when Marcus Canty, 20, sang “I Wish” by Stevie Wonder and made those of us who heard the young Stevie Wonder feel like we were in that moment once again, when The Anser, three 20-27-year-old very “sick” guys sang Rolling in the Deep, and last, but definitely not least, when Chris Rene, the trash collector and 28-year-old father of two, only 70 days clean and sober, sang a song he wrote himself (often a recipe for disaster) called “Young Homie” and brought the house down. Wicked. It was one of those ’hope you were there moments’ when TV viewers were treated to the purely vicarious enjoyment of someone else’s success.

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Extraordinary Times, Extraordinary Measures

These are extraordinary times and they call for extraordinary measures. Our economic situation is unprecedented. We can look to the past and compare what is happening to the Great Depression or to any other time in our history that we wish, and although that informs us to some degree, it probably will not give us the answer to today’s crisis. Our population is much larger than during any of these previous downturns, we are in a time of economic transition which is also complicating this particular downturn. We cannot rely on a war to bring us back to boom times because a global war would be disastrous. Small wars are draining our resources, not providing the upturn we might wish for. Our current situation requires time, patience, and more innovative solutions than just looking to the past and doing what we did before.

Foreclosures and the programs that have been devised to help homeowners who find themselves facing foreclosure are one area where we need simpler approaches. Although the “fixer” programs were supposed to be ‘quick and dirty’ pathways to mortgage restoration, they are not working. There are too many people who need the services of too few. People have to wait so long for assistance that they lose their property while they wait. Why doesn’t the foreclosure process stop once a homeowner signs up to be seen? The process is still open to abuse as in the robo-signing scandals. The process still allows the financial institutions who caused the problems to place a stigma on the people who were collateral damage in the schemes of those who used bad mortgages as a vehicle for gain. Can’t we find a better way to help people stay in their homes?

It is time for Grover Norquist to let his people go. The pledge our elected representatives signed in which they promised not to raise taxes originated in 1986. Although our current problems may have already been in their infancy in those days, the true scope of the changes the global economy would undergo was not at all apparent. We need access to all strategies to get us through these times intact. The stubborn insistence that taxes cannot be raised, and that any tinkering with the tax code represents raising taxes, is no longer a viable approach. The GOP talks all the time about the need for comprehensive tax reform. I shudder to think what they mean by this.

I agree that there is room for reform of regulation, for tightening up Medicare and Medicaid. We have paid money into both Medicare and Social Security. Although we now understand that the way Social Security was designed, and that the huge bubble of “baby boomers” is making the program difficult to sustain, we did pay for this program during all of our working lives and there has been plenty of time to fix it. In the case of Social Security we just say please fix it. In the case of the ‘Medics’, we hope there will be some fixes that do not just cut services and increase costs to people who rely on these programs; changes that find some basic ways to cut the cost of health care.

Even though it costs a lot of money to take better care of our environment, and even though environmental regulations probably did help drive business away, we cannot hide our heads in the sand and pretend that the enormous number of changes people force on air, water, and earth as we try to sustain ourselves do not have any negative effects on our little planet. China and India will eventually have to take the environment into account also. Maybe the recent activity in the Ring of Fire is related to the uptick in industrial pollution in the area. It would be tempting to get rid of all environmental regulation and return to mindless plundering, but we know we cannot. The Earth is our one and only home right now and we have to do what we can to keep it healthy.

We cannot just cut back and sit and pay our debts. The world will move on without us. The people who say we must spend some money to make some money are correct. We have to find a balance between paying down debt and careful stimulation. Looking to the private sector for stimulus seems equivalent to Waiting for Godot.

To the GOP I reiterate my new mantra ‘stop the obstructionism and say something new’, please and soon.

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Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese – Book

Cover of "Cutting for Stone (Vintage)"Cover of Cutting for Stone (Vintage)

In Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese we start with an Indian woman, trained as a nun and a nurse, sent by her order to Africa. We know something has gone awry because, as the story opens, she is in labor, it’s not going well, and the surgeon she has worked in tune with for seven years, Dr. Thomas Stone, is so anguished by her distress that he is unable to help her. Sister Mary Joseph Praise dies giving birth to Thomas Stone’s twin boys, Marion and Shiva Praise Stone. The twins are joined by a stem connecting their skulls and must be delivered by Caesarean but Dr. Stone, a great surgeon, cannot bring himself to cut into Sister Mary, even though, and probably because, he loves her. The twins never meet their father, Dr. Stone, because he runs to Kenya, has a nervous breakdown, and ends up in America.

Hema, the Missing Hospital Ob-Gyn (Missing Hospital began life as Mission Hospital, but this is Ethiopia and stuff happens) and Ghosh, another Missing Doctor (who takes the place of Dr. Stone) have been falling in love for a while. They might never have found each other, but the twins fix that. Hema, Ghosh, Shiva and Marion become a family.

What happens to this little family and to the Missing Hospital crew, and to Dr. Thomas Stone is an excellent story and I will not tell it here. You will need to read the book. Both twins do take after their birth parents in that they end up as surgeons, one formally schooled, one not.

This is a family story, although the family is non-traditional. It is also a medical story, a story of surgeons which is where the title comes from (a title with a double meaning, as you will see, “cutting for stone”).
Although most of this novel takes place in Ethiopia and is mostly African in its descriptions, characters and events, it reminds me of a John Irving book in that the characters are a combination of the eccentric and the normal. Shiva/Marion, the twins are both unique and familiar as is the contrast between the stable family life the boys are provided by Hema and Ghosh, and the other, more offbeat details of their parentage and their lives in Ethiopia (and eventually in America).

I loved this story and got very attached to the characters. It is a good old-fashioned novel written in a modern, global world.

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